Thursday, September 18, 2008

Big Flavours in Toa Payoh

Chua Seng Huat Seafood Restaurant
No 9 Toa Payoh Industrial Park
Lorong 8 Toa Payoh
Tel 62540896
In the twenty years that I have been a chef, there is a Cze Char (dishes cook upon order) restaurant whose owner’s dishes were exceptionally memorable to me. I used to take the opportunities of enjoying his dishes for granted. The story about it is because the owner of this restaurant is a key sponsor to a few of the Teochew clans and temples associations that I belong to and hence whenever there are festive celebrations or funerals, he is sure to be the one there feeding everyone regardless of the occasion. The restaurant that I am talking about here is Chua Seng Huat located at the industrial canteen of Lorong 8 Toa Payoh and the person I refer to is Seng Chong “Chek” or uncle as we address him in Teochew. This unpretentious boss of the Cze Char has the pattern of the “chow ah chek” uncles like those u see hanging around Singapore Pools Turf Club betting outlets on the weekends. You wouldn’t even think he’s the towkay(boss) at first glance as he is often at the back of the house checking on stocks or cutting ingredients for his personally trained chef. Yes, at his age, Seng Chong “Chek” has learnt to take it easy with life. Moreover I can also say he has trained his chef well too as most of his signature dishes are able to be replicate by his chef.
Till today if u want to enjoy Seng Chong “Chek” dishes on the weekends, it is better to make reservations than having to wait for a table and watch others tuck in first. What you will get is a table laid out similar to those Chinese dinners for festive occasions in the seventies minus the soda lime glasses. Some dishes will require advance orders and this include his signature suckling pig or shark’s fin dishes.
In the years that I have been eating dishes put out by their catering team, if u are able to ignore the sometimes “aunties mafia” service attitudes or ambience factor, there is nothing else to pick about. Some of Seng Chong’s dishes that I have always enjoyed include:
Superior Sharks’ Fin Soup- Do not expect this to come in a big bowl with the fins all dispersed around the starchy stock laced with beaten egg. Instead, every time we have the fins, it is always put out in a deep serving plate with the entire comb of fins sitting on top of a mound of freshly picked flower crabmeat. The lovely slightly thickened broth is then laced over and accompanying garnishes like fresh bean sprouts, sliced ham and coriander leaves are topped over the fins. When u have it with a dash of XO Brandy, it is a fantastic synergy of flavours and classic eating cultures.

Suckling Pig- Different from Cantonese Style of having the skin crystal smooth and shiny, the Teochew version has the piglet skin on coarse and crackly. The piglet also has a touch of spiciness and a thin ratio of fat and skin. Instead of Hoi Sin sauce, it is dipped in sweet soy sauce. While the dish may look simple, the skill lies in roasting it on the open fire pitch to achieved its sensational crispiness. Definitely a hard piece of work.

Braised Duck Web- One of their key specialities, requires advance order and available around festive season. Slowly braised in soy sauce until the gelatine tenderizes, the flavourful duck web is served on lightly sautéed iceberg lettuce. Many older folks will love this dish for sure.

Prawns with White Leeks and Crispy Flat Fish- this teochew classic not to be missed, only ang ka prawns are used for this dish and they are one of the best as these prawns are caught from the wild and cannot be farmed. Hence this dish is also subject to daily availability in the markets. In the banquets, Seng Chong uses the large size ones that are nice plump and juicy. Lightly sautéed with White Chives, Shaoxing Wine and fish sauce, the finishing touch of adding crispy fried flat fish pieces gives an additional contrast in textures, toasty fragrance to the dish.
Chestnuts chicken-My utilmate favourite whereby a whole chicken is stuffed with chestnuts, carrots and mushrooms, wrapped in cellophane paper and steamed for more than 2 hours until tender and melt in the mouth softness. Usually on first bit, it is heavenly orgasmic on the palate. As all the natural jus of the chicken is also entrapped within the package, it makes the sauce very flavourful and tasty especially with rice. So good the N and I can just order this and finish it off with rice and a simple vegetable dish.

Prawn Rolls- Traditionally wrapped in pigs' caul but simplified with beancurd skin in today’s standards, the good thing about them is u get more prawns than pork in the rolls here. Also less starch is used as a binder, the taste is more delicate and not heavy.
Steamed Teochew style Pomfret- The ultimate challenge for any reputable Teochew restaurant. The way the fish is pre cut before steaming, control of fire and precision timing is extremely crucial for this dish and experience counts as u monitor these three factors for each fish that goes in to the steamer. The best part of the dish is not the fish itself but the resulting broth from the steaming process. True connoisseurs of this dish will slurp the broth first before going for the fish. By far, Seng Chong’s steamed fish has been very consistent compared to other players like Lee Gui (Ah Hoi) which unfortunately screwed up a small size grouper for me during my last visit.
Prawns with Tofu- Most restaurants/tze char uses commercially made egg tofu for this dish. Here it is different as the tofu is made in house, hence smoother, softer and tastier. This is one of N and my favourites.
Cereal prawns- Quality of prawns used deserves a mention. Large size angka prawns gives the dish a really good bite not to mention the fragrant cereals complimenting it. As the prawns are wild caught, be sure to ask before ordering as some days the sizes are not that fantastically big so u could be disappointed.
Kailan with Bean curd Puffs- Tired of just having your greens with oyster sauce, throw in the bean curd puffs and the dish is a lot more tasty with the fried notes of the puffs giving the boring dish a new dimension of aroma and flavour.

Sea Cucumber with Braised Duck- I could eat a whole pot with rice and be very happy about it. No ducky yucky smell from the meat, very tender and aromatic from the spices used and not to mentions the gelatinous bite of the sea cucumber contrasted by crunchy snow peas and the ooh la la savoury gravy to wet your rice with.

Kong Bak Pau- U may think this only for Chinese funerals, but here, families with three generations in tow will sure to order this dish and the older folks know that this one of Seng Chong’s best dish. If u take care to remove some of the excess fat (only some, not all!!) and lace the warm soft buns with enough coriander, it actually does not taste that greasy. The coriander leaves inject a fresh burst of flavour on bite and brings out the warmth of flavours from the steamed braised pork belly.

Or Nee- This is one place that serves the unadulterated versions of sweetened yam paste with only pumpkin and gingko nuts in a clear syrup, not coconut milk. The yams are very fragrant and if my guess is correct, there is a touch of shallot infused pork lard in the dessert though I do not detect it regularly. It is sinful yes, but that is also the real tradition hence this dessert is never served in big portions.

1 comment:

Dora said...

Think you will also like the Or Nee at Teochew City Seafood Restaurant at Centrepoint. They also don't use coconut milk.